COMPETITION POLICY REVIEW BILL
05 Sep 2017
This week, Parliament will debate the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Competition Policy Review) Bill 2017.
In 2014, the Government commissioned a panel led by Professor Ian Harper to review Australia’s competition laws, policies and institutions. That review reported in March 2015.
Two and a half years later, the Turnbull Government has brought to parliament a bill containing 14 schedules amending the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to implement some of the recommendations from the Harper Review.
Labor supports 13 of these 14 schedules. They are largely uncontroversial. Indeed, we would have been happy to support them in 2015, when the Harper Review finished its work.
However, schedule 6 of the bill proposes to increase the maximum penalty for breaches of the secondary boycott provisions (also known as ‘sympathy strikes’) from $750,000 to $10 million.
For comparison, penalties related to unprotected industrial relations activity under the Fair Work Act 2009 are subject to far less severe penalties of a maximum of 60 penalty units, i.e. $12,600. If enacted, the maximum penalty for a secondary boycott would be nearly 800 times higher than the maximum penalty for unprotected industrial action.
The International Labor Organisation has noted the prohibition of secondary boycotts in Australian law is beyond what they regard as ‘permissible prohibitions’. Secondary boycott laws are typically used against unions that are engaged in sympathy strikes.
Under international law (International Labour Organisation Convention no.87), sympathy strikes are permitted, provided the original strike is lawful. Higher penalties would move Australia even further away from international best practice.
For more than 40 years, Labor has held the view that secondary boycotts are primarily an industrial matter, rather than a competition issue. It was the Fraser Government in 1977 and 1980 that introduced secondary boycotts into the Trade Practices Act, with the intention of targeting trade unions. In the 1980s, the Hawke Government sought to remove these provisions from the Trade Practices Act, but the Senate defeated these attempts. The Keating Government in 1993 moved some secondary boycott provisions into the Industrial Relations Act, only for the Howard Government to return them to the Trade Practices Act in 1996.
Secondary boycotts are not as prevalent as they have been in the past, undermining the lack of a policy case to recommend higher penalties.
The Government is running an aggressive economically regressive agenda, including cuts to penalty rates, corporate tax cuts, refusing to close multinational loopholes and defending tax concessions for the wealthiest.
Labor supports sensible competition reforms, which is why we are backing the bulk of this bill. However, we do not support policies that erode workers’ rights and move Australia further away from international best practice.
Labor will move amendments to remove Schedule 6 from this Bill.
Labor has led the competition policy debate. We have called for higher penalties for breaches of consumer law and anti-competition law (in line with international best practice), for the competition watchdog to be given a market studies power, for access to justice reforms to help small business, and for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s litigation budget to be boosted.
Australia’s markets are too concentrated, and the Turnbull Government needs to do more to crack down on monopoly power, rather than targeting the right of workers to campaign collectively for a fair deal.